Swinton good at being evil in `Narnia'

`Chronicles' should make indie actress a household name

December 07, 2005|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

New York -- "Isn't Tilda amazing as the White Witch?" asks Mark Johnson, the producer of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, about Tilda Swinton, the film's live-action star.

"The part could be so evil and growly, so Cruella De Vil. But she plays it just as cold and unresponsive as can be. Before the big battle, when she says, `I have no use for prisoners: kill them all,' it's just a statement of fact."

With 5-foot-11 Swinton in the role, Jadis the White Witch needn't seethe or scream. Of course, Jadis' actions shriek louder than words. She freezes Narnia into an eternal winter, nearly kills Aslan, the noble lion, and terrorizes four British children who enter Narnia through a wardrobe.

But all this could be dreary and static without the implacable threat that Swinton brings to the character -- along with the diabolical cleverness that ultimately makes Jadis spine-tingling. Fearless and effortlessly imposing, Swinton plays Jadis as a creature who knows her own physical and psychic strength and isn't shy about it.

Which can be said of Swinton, too.

Little known to general audiences, Swinton, 45, has been a fixture in art houses for two decades, winning raves for her roles in The Deep End (2001), Adaptation (2002) and this year's Broken Flowers.

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe should make her a household name -- or at least a universally known image on action toys and fast-food boxes.

Her presence comes partly from her height; from her translucent skin, dark eyes and white-blond hair; and from what moviemaker Billy Wilder used to call "flesh impact." She's sinewy and fleshy, not willowy.

Most of all, it comes from her bracing intelligence and humor, and her dazzling powers of articulation and emotional inflection. As eclectic as she is courageous, Swinton earned a dual degree in social and political science and English literature from Cambridge University in 1983. Then she studied briefly with the Royal Shakespeare Company before striking a creative partnership with Derek Jarman, a ballet and opera designer who directed a slew of avant-garde features between 1976 and 1994, when he died of AIDS.

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Swinton exploited her inventive instincts on an epic canvas, while telling a story that would entrance her and her artist-husband John Byrne's 7-year-old twins, Xavier and Honor.

"The White Witch has to be an icon," she says, doing interviews in a ballroom at a Manhattan hotel. "She doesn't get or need to say very much; she has to freeze at 20 paces or less."

Swinton resisted early attempts to picture Jadis as a swarthy empress. "So many people said she's dark -- she's got black hair. But then you go back to the book and you read `tall, white, proud face, red mouth,' and that's it. I didn't go for that red mouth because I didn't want to look like a woman wearing lipstick or makeup or clothes bought in a shop and made for her by either hand or machine. I wanted her to be a creature, an alien in semi-human form."

She mimes the White Witch taking on mortal shape and realizing that she needs clothes. With a flick of her wrist and a casual, "Oh, there's a waterfall," she summons an image of Jadis turning turbulent waters into a flowing gown. Then she augments it with precipitation: "Oh, there's some snow, some ice."

Unlike the traditional headdress in the book's illustrations, Swinton's White Witch wears a crown of icicles. "I'm quite suspicious of metal crowns," says Swinton. "I thought ice would be better because it melts. Obviously there had to be variety -- you've got to entertain people -- but we didn't want the audience to feel she would be going into a wardrobe and changing clothes. So we had the idea that it would be her clothes that would change: Her dress would morph.

"You know when you go to a fairground and you run those things between your finger and your thumb to see if you're sexy or angry or something? Actually her dress is like a mood swing-o-meter. When things go well for her, it all puffs up, swoosh. When things go badly, it all becomes quite thin and starts to dry up and gets darker, like smoke."

Swinton never lost her focus on making Jadis more like "a supernatural natural being than a lady in a dress. I, Tilda, had a free pass to not join the dots psychologically. The thing that frightens children the most is not just this coldness but this unpredictability. If she's going to shout, it's because she's going to frighten someone, not because she's angry -- she's incapable of the emotional connection that would make her angry. It's like an inverse of what we want to do with our own children: model humanity to them. This is the opposite. Try and shake them up. Keep them guessing, rather than follow through."

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